Oli Warwick meets up with Marco Bernardi to trace his path in techno from cult Scottish night Club 69 to overseeing the Elevator Sound shop in Bristol via a multiplicity of aliases and releases.
It’s taken as a given that the modern day artist will turn their hand to many different things in pursuit of creative and professional fulfillment, but even by the standards of the typical multi-tasker Marco Bernardi has a lot of sizable irons in the fire. For a start the Glasgow-born, half-Italian artist has a production career that reaches back more than ten years with a release rate that would make a completist shudder.
With at least eight different aliases, a history of collaborations and a trail of live sets left in his wake, in musical terms alone he’s a character worth exploring. However when we meet up on Stokes Croft in Bristol on a midweek afternoon he’s far from thinking artistically, caught as he is between his music equipment shop, his full time club management job and his family. Fortunately, and as anyone that knows Bernardi will attest, his energy precedes him and goes some way to explaining how he’s managed to cover so much ground over the course of his career.
Bernardi is a product of the ever-buoyant Glasgow techno scene, and his passion for the city shines through when I raise the point that it often gets overlooked when people talk about the significance of Detroit and Berlin in the early days. His first techno epiphanies came in the early ‘90s at the notorious Club 69, situated incongruously beneath a curry shop in Paisley to the west of central Glasgow. Thanks to the connections forged by Martin McKay, who Bernardi fully praises as the godfather of the Glaswegian techno scene, you could witness the likes of Jeff Mills and other such Detroit luminaries playing in an 80 capacity basement reverberating to the starry-eyed rush of the ecstasy renaissance. Before he was off on weekend-long sessions though, Bernardi was already dabbling in electronic music production.
“I had an Atari with two MB of RAM and a 32 Meg hard drive,” he explains over a coffee. “I had the Falcon with the analogue input to do two second sampling. A mate called Keith moved into my house after my mum died and we started playing around with sequencing and synths.” Together, the pair produced breakbeat, jungle, sped up electro, “making nine-minute tunes that completely changed every 32 bars, ‘cos we were young and didn’t know about repetition and holding down a groove.”
Rubadub is a constant presence in conversation with Bernardi, even up to the present day, and he credits the store with setting the tone for the techno scene in Glasgow thanks to early imports of all Metroplex, Red Planet, Underground Resistance records and many other seminal Detroit label you care to mention. It perhaps explains why the city has often erred towards tougher, grittier brands of dance music, and it certainly switched Bernardi on to the electro that has dominated his output over the years. His first release in 2002 was The Chicago Bearsden EP under the Mhelt Project banner alongside Martyn Henderson.
Henderson’s Jengaheads project ran a night at Glasgow nightclub Planet Peach, which for some years filled in for a fire-damaged Sub Club, and it was there Bernardi played his first gig. “I had a full Atari and synths rig,” he recalls of his debut outing. “I had three months notice to prepare a whole live set so I was stressing out big time. I still have a recording of it somewhere.”
In terms of collaborations, there was also a dabble with minimal techno alongside Tony Scott as The Separatists in a reflection of the sound that could be heard dominating Slam’s nights at The Arches (not to mention clubs across the rest of the Western world in 2006). However it was in 2004 with the Morpheusis 12” on Dutch label Frustrated Funk that Bernardi’s solo career started in earnest, and the Octogen alias followed shortly after. Under his own name, Bernardi has remained close to the Dutch scene, with releases on Clone itself to offshoots Royal Oak and Djak-Up-Bitch, as well as Crème Organization amongst many others.
“Octogen was started because at the time Alex Smoke had hit the big time with Incommunicado,” Bernardi explains of his other prominent moniker. “Slam were killing it too, and I needed an outlet for my more melodic stuff I was making. I was trying to build an identity away from the more Clone-friendly electro stuff.”
The issue of over-productivity hasn’t diminished over time. In recent years Sandman, Gerstaffelen, Parking Attendant, Gino Felino and Gabicci Brunner have all emerged from Bernardi’s studio. Gerstaffelen in particular appeared on M>O>S with a delirious take on Chicago jack, while Felino had a one-off bout on Crème Organization with an on-point rendition of arch Italo disco, cod-English vocals and all. The latter suggests Bernardi isn’t the average reclusive techno wallflower, a point only further aggravated by the existence of “Boobies” by one-‘hit’ wonder Carlos Adolfo Dominguez. When I bring up this particularly sleazy skeleton in the closet it elicits a nervous chuckle from Bernardi, but he also points out that vocals have always been a key ingredient in much of the music he makes.
“Bizarrely every track I’ve ever written has always had vocal in it, even if it’s a wee sample in the background,” he explains. “I call them sprinkles, ‘cos I always put them in at the end just to sprinkle over the top. I feel as if it’s not finished until there’s wee vocal noises in the background.”
Some of the more recent aliases have arisen on Falstaff and Bernardi’s own label Take The Elevator, attributed as much to the unpredictable turnaround times of over-subscribed pressing plants as to the artist’s own prolificacy, but regardless they reflect where Bernardi is situated now as a resident of Bristol. The move came about when his wife was offered a job in the West Country, and so he found himself in a new city with but one music contact to call upon.
“Six months previous Jamie Harvey had booked me to play at his Switch night in (central Bristol nightclub) Timbuk2,” says Bernardi, “and when I came to Bristol he was the only person I knew and I just randomly Facebooked him and went, ‘Hi Jamie, do you remember me? I’m the guy you booked six months ago. I’ve moved to Bristol and I need some mates! Can we be mates?’”
Harvey was working as events manager at Timbuk2 at the time, but local techno aficionados knew something had changed when bookings such as Newworldaquarium, Kassem Mosse and Peter Van Hoesen started to appear in a city that had been woefully undernourished with quality 4/4 music for some time. Almost out of nowhere a club that has ever waxed and waned in the quality of its music policy was brimming with world class DJs and live acts, and it was thanks to Bernardi moving in to manage the city centre venue.
While his period working in the club was a brief one, it came at a pivotal time for a city with a dominant heritage in dub, reggae, jungle and dubstep. It’s fair to say the spate of quality house and techno bookings helped set the tone for recent developments in the Bristol electronic music scene, with the likes of Hodge and his Headrush compatriots finding a venue sympathetic to the bookings they were keen to put on.
After two years Bernardi was ready to leave, but his stint at Timbuk2 introduced him to the tight-knit Bristol music community, paving the way for the Elevator Sound shop that he opened in the back of Idle Hands in 2014. Having witnessed first-hand the evolution of the Rubadub store in Glasgow when they branched out to start selling production equipment, Bernardi was keen to bring the same blueprint to Bristol.
“I’d been speaking to Chris (Farrell – Idle Hands label boss and shop owner) for about a year saying, ‘why don’t we start selling sound cards and synths and just try it out for the shop? You’re the only specialised underground electronic record store in the city. I want to be the only specialised equipment shop.’”
A week before our interview, Elevator Sound celebrated its first birthday with a Friday evening in-store that spilled out on to the street followed up by a session in The Doghouse that, in typical Bristol fashion, did away with flashy names and focused on a local, personal line-up. October, for example, had been instrumental in helping convert the shop space at the back of the building, scaffold equipment racks and all, while The Kelly Twins had released one of Bernardi’s more recent efforts on their Happy Skull label. It can be understandably turbulent opening a shop specializing in synthesisers, drum machines, controllers and effects units, but twelve months in the outlook seems promising for Elevator.
“August was my best month I’ve had since I opened the shop,” he proclaims with certainty. “I can see it. I’m not blinded by thinking, ‘yeah everything’s fine, and everything’s going cool’. I can see when it’s shit and I can see when it’s good, and I can see that it’s working.”
Of course the more recent buzz around outboard gear has enticed a steadily increasing stream of young producers into the shop curious about the daunting world of hardware, but equally Bernardi has been proactive in taking his business out into the community, forming independent Ableton courses, one-off lectures, and CDR-style in-store events for burgeoning producers to test out their new tracks. However, aside from the latest lines in factory-fresh machines there’s an ever-shifting selection of second hand curios to pique the interest of the older guard as well.
Around the time we meet up Bernardi is handing over the management of Elevator to shop staff while he focuses on overseeing the third largest nightclub in the country, Motion. It’s plain to see that he feels torn about handing over the day to day running of the shop having built it up thus far, but he also relishes the challenge of running a hectic venue. The question is, where does this leave his music career?
“It’s always there,” Bernardi assures me. “I’ve always got records coming out. I’m just about to sign a 12″ to a really big label as well at the moment which I’m just finalising. I think after these records come out before Christmas I’ll take a break for a wee bit on the production side and concentrate on the club and the shop.”
At the time of writing Bernardi has had six singles out already this year under his own name, not to mention all the other projects and sidelines, and the labels have ranged from fringe concerns such as Abstract Forms and Brokntoys to Barba, Mathematics and Berceuse Heroique. In line with his plans to ease up on the release schedule at the end of the year, he speaks of taking a more selective approach to gig offers considering the other commitments in his life.
“I’m just not taking the shit anymore,” he reveals. “I’m not prepared to fly to some shitty wee gig in some shitty club where no-one turns up. I only do, not necessarily the higher paid gigs, but the ones I know are good venues and it’s a good party.”
Equally when Bernardi talks about his Take The Elevator label (set up in parallel to the shop), he has the air of a man who has paid his dues in the music industry and simply does what he wants to when he wants to, safely past the desperate enthusiasm of a new entrant into an ever more competitive electronic music scene.
“I’m really lucky that I’ve got Clone behind me,” he explains about his label, “so we don’t shout about it. We put records out. Clone filter it to the right people and they sell out.” While Bernardi may claim to be casual about Take The Elevator, the label operates as a natural extension of the style he has tapped into throughout his career. Thus far the material has largely come from his own aliases although he does insist that if the right tracks landed in his inbox he would release them.
“I don’t like (material on the label) to be polished and perfectly mastered,” he explains, “I love how all the early Bunker stuff is. That whole Hague thing is what I’m all about. I don’t care about clean mixes and kicks being a bit muffled with the bassline.” Bernardi cites Danny Wolfers as a good example. “Listen to all the Legowelt tracks over the last twenty years. Has he ever once worried about that? Has he fuck! He’s just like that with his synths, mixing them all in, and to me they sound phenomenal.”
Having succinctly summed up the nature of his creative craft, Bernardi finishes his coffee, checks his phone and darts off on his BMX to see to a variety of errands. While artistic temperament is traditionally considered distinct from practical, logistical concerns, he makes a strong case for juggling both. In these multi-tasking times, it goes some way to illustrating why he remains such a prolific force in an ever-quickening world.
Interview by Oli Warwick
All photos by Alex Digard
Marco Bernardi on Juno